Feeling Into Super Normal
In Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa draw our attention to the phenomenon of everyday objects.
“When I’m true to my feelings, I really ‘get’ Super Normal,” writes Fukasawa in his essay for Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary, the book that culminates three exhibitions by the same name that he and Morrison presented in 2006 and 2007.
Maybe Fukasawa admits to only sometimes “getting” Super Normal—a term coined for the unexpected appeal of particular everyday objects—because, as a concept, it’s hard to get.
Tap into your intuition and you’ll know right away if an object is Super Normal. Think about it too hard and certainty quickly slips away.
What Is Super Normal?
Is an object’s beauty in its enduring ubiquity? In its uncanny ability to bring pleasure despite being otherwise unremarkable? Is its presence undeniable? Its absence unimaginable? Yes? It’s probably Super Normal.
The idea of Super Normal was born in a conversation between Morrison and Takashi Okutani (then with Muji) about Fukasawa’s work at the 2005 Salone del Mobile, the international furniture fair that takes place annually in Milan. Morrison used the word “normal” to describe the appeal of the aluminum stools Fukasawa had designed that year for Magis. To Morrison’s description, Okutani added “super.”
“Normal" may not be a word designers might like to hear used about their work, but Morrison meant it as high praise. In Fukasawa’s stools, Morrison saw a corrective to the newer, better, flashier churn of early-aughts design.
In the book, he explains: “There are better ways to design than putting a big effort into making something look special. Special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term. Special things demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting a potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence.”
Morrison offers the example of a beloved pair of hand-blown wine glasses he’d picked up at a junk shop. Through time and use, the glasses became integral to his everyday experience, made special not because of their design but because of their ease of being there. The glassware’s identity wasn’t wrapped up in how they looked, or who had made them look that way, but in how good it felt to use them over and over again. He couldn’t imagine his table without them. Special was grown, not applied, not purchased.
“This quota of atmospheric spirit is the most mysterious and elusive quality in objects,” he writes. “How can it be that so many designs fail to have any real beneficial effect on the atmosphere, and yet these glasses, made without much design thought or any attempt to achieve anything other than a good ordinary wine glass, happen to be successful?”
This atmospheric shift accounts for the “super.” The normalcy of the run-of-the-mill glasses was transcended by their ability to evoke emotion. Fukasawa’s stools were similar. For Morrison, they also embodied this mysterious excellence, and he wanted to talk more about it. He introduced Fukasawa to the idea spurred by his work, and shortly after, the two had a Super Normal exhibition on their hands.
Super Normal Things
One exhibition turned into three. From Tokyo’s Axis Gallery, Super Normal traveled to TwentyTwentyOne in London, and the 2007 Triennale in Milan. The exhibitions included 210 collected objects determined by Morrison and Fukasawa to fit the amorphous Super Normal mold.
Buckets, bicycle handlebars, vegetable peelers, paperclips, and a lone goose egg by unnamed and unknown designers sat beside objects by design greats, like Arne Jacobsen’s sugar bowl, Marc Newsom’s salt caster and “Zenit” spice holder, Dieter Rams’s Universal 606 Shelving System for Vitsoe, and Isamu Noguchi’s Akari ceiling lamp.
Super Normal is not a denouncement of design (with these players involved, how could it be?). “Objects become Super Normal through use rather than design,” says Morrison, “although their design is key.” Morrison and Fukasawa also aren’t saying that form must follow function. In their notes on item 6. Square brush washer, they write, “If a shape that follows function is too functional, its relationship to people may turn cold.” The included items are touted for “maintaining a gentle relationship with people.”
Several items in the book are utilitarian objects found in restaurants and other public venues. These items are touch points, pieces of material culture shared by the collective—and maybe that’s what keeps their utility from going cold. Item 47. Tumbler is a ubiquitous soba shop tumbler drunk from quickly, while standing up. In it is “a shared feeling of the most refreshing way to drink water.”
Of item 29. Soy sauce dispenser, designed by Masahiro Mori, they explain that the vessel “has such an iconic presence that it automatically comes to mind when we think of soy sauce…Going to a good sushi shop and finding a different soy sauce dispenser would perhaps make you feel like something just wasn’t right. ‘Normal’ is something that is created through the existence of an object interlaced with the overall atmosphere that surrounds it.”
Why We Like It
While they have now written a manifesto and published a book indexing several of their collected objects, Morrison and Fukasawa are careful to say that Super Normal is not a theory. In place of an in-or-out dichotomy there are individual relationships and cultural contexts, a sensorial web full of holes that are meant to be there.
The hunt for Super Normal is a way of paying attention to things beyond how they look. How does an object make you feel? Does your feeling toward this object change and deepen over time? What is the lived-out effect of its aesthetic?
“I believe it’s re-realizing something that you already knew, re-acknowledging what you naturally thought was good in something,” Fukasawa writes. “Super Normal consists of the things that we overlook when we focus too much on ‘design’—I think it points to those things in our everyday lives that we naturally hold an affinity for.”